The Perpetual Student: transitioning back from employment to education

Student hidden by book pile

It was not so very long ago that I considered myself well and truly done with higher education. As a student, at least. I’d been down the traditional route of studying for a Bachelor’s degree, then a Master’s, and felt that wider civic responsibilities beckoned – and that I really ought to start paying my way in life.

Well, would you credit it? Here I am a student. Again.

At least this time I am studying with a clearly defined purpose in mind. I have a career trajectory at least partially mapped out, though a large part of this plan, admittedly, does depend on my convincing someone I’m actually employable. In my earlier studenthood, I thought I would persist in academia indefinitely, progressing up the ranks of the education hierarchy and doing what all perpetual students eventually do: teaching. (The intellectual Circle of Life, perhaps?) Now, I’m studying vocationally, rather than in accordance with some abstract (and slightly conceited) idealised image of my future self. Though I’ve always relished academic study, this time I can appreciate just how relevant it will be to what I want to go on to do afterwards.

The process of transitioning back into education from employment has been something of a rude awakening. Or, if not rude, certainly a little facetious. Studying requires a different set of skills from those that I relied on last year. Some habits I have transferred: I still set my weekday alarm for 06:20 to capitalise on my most productive time of day (I’m a lark; my eyelids droop by mid-evening), and I try to maintain a structure to each day even at weekends.

A crucial difference is that my work last year could be left behind in the workplace; from 5 o’clock I was on me-time. Now, I am back to the continuous drudgery labelled ‘self-motivated study’. We’ve all said we can do it with aplomb on countless CVs and personal statements, and for the most part these will be genuine reflections of our diligence. I describe it as drudgery with my tongue firmly in my cheek, since there is no escaping its necessity, nor its role in uncovering topics of personal interest or difficulty.

I find myself once more something of a neophyte independent learner, despite previous experience. Part of my learning process this year is about re-assimilating not only knowledge, but also the self-knowledge that enables me to learn effectively. As an undergraduate I had three years to hone and perfect my personal study tactics; this year I’m having to accelerate that discovery process, lest the year race towards its conclusion with me still in a fog of bewilderment.

Possibly I exaggerate, but the point remains valid: returning to study is not always a smooth process, and this is especially true when there are additional complications in the frame. Some of my peers have part-time jobs, even while studying full-time. Some have part-time jobs with only marginally fewer hours than a full-time job. Some have children or relatives to care for, or face a significant commute to classes as part of mitigating financial burdens. My own complication is an on-going health issue, which slows me down physically and cognitively, undermines my self-confidence, saps my motivation and means I expend a huge amount of physical and mental energy just to keep plodding through each day. I find, though, that the more motivated I am to improve my health, the greater benefit I experience in other areas of life – including my studies. And my studies are one of the major motivations for me to recover a better state of health.

Rarely will an individual be exempt from additional sources of anxiety or pressure while they negotiate their studies. We read recently on these very pages about the tendency some of us have to over-commit, which is a trap I too ensnare myself in repeatedly. Somewhere, there is a balance between making the most of every opportunity (carpe diem, and all that) and accepting that concentration will suffer when spread too disparately.

I’m in the process of establishing that balance, but I know that I’m on the right course for me at this point in my life, and I’m surrounded by resources to support me throughout.


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